Crimea base standoff sheds light on wider conflict: Nahlah Ayed

When a gutsy Ukrainian commander and a Russian emissary came face to face outside the Belbek airbase on Friday, their remarkable exchange gave witnesses rare insight into the thinking behind the wider international standoff. Now the Ukrainian's whereabouts are unknown.

World leaders must answer the 'why' in questions over crisis

Ukrainian Colonel Yuli Mamchur, right, and Steinberg Alexander, head of the Sevastopol Committee of Defence, left, came face to face outside the Belbek airbase on Friday. Alexander asked Mamchur to 'take your troops out with your flag.' (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

When a gutsy Ukrainian commander and a Russian emissary came face to face outside the Belbek airbase on Friday, their remarkable exchange gave witnesses rare insight into the thinking behind the wider international standoff.

The commander, Col. Yuri Mamchur, shot to fame earlier this month when he led his men — and a throng of invited media — on an unarmed march to face the Russian soldiers who had seized their control tower and airfield. The Ukrainians wanted to return to work. They also actively ensured the world would witness their resolve and restraint.

The masked Russians, then, pointed their guns, warning the Ukrainians to stop their advance. When they didn’t, the Russians shot over their heads.

At Friday’s standoff, no one brandished weapons near the two men’s huddle. The Russian emissary wore a badge that identified him as Steinberg Alexander, head of the Sevastopol Committee of Defence. He was in civilian clothing — a coat, suit and tie.

Ukrainian Colonel Yuli Mamchur, hat on, negotiates with a Russian officer who is demanding Ukrainian servicemen leave the base. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

“I have one request for you,” offered the emissary. “If you can take your troops out with your flag, then I will honour you. 

“But if you protest, Russian troops will act accordingly.”

The colonel did not hesitate in his retort.

“I didn’t invite anyone to come here in the first place," he said. "I have a legal right to be here. If my superiors tell me otherwise, I will go.”

The emissary wouldn’t budge. 

“Let me correct you. You are not here legally. Your base is on the territory of a foreign state.”

In faraway Moscow, President Vladimir Putin had just signed into law Crimea’s absorption into the Russian fold. The colonel was well aware of this, but he too was unmoved.

“Until I get orders from my superiors..."

“Well, you know those orders will never come,” was the biting reply from the Russian.

The mustachioed emissary was right.

The lingering question as Col. Mamchur and his men waited in limbo, is why.

New government mute

Where was the new government in Kyiv? The same government that had repeatedly said Ukraine would go to war if Russia dared take Crimea. It had also once announced it had called up the reserves in preparation for combat.

The prime minister was in fact in Brussels, signing a deal on political cooperation with Europe. Otherwise, the government was contending with the chaos that comes with inexperience in governing.

Further, issuing a withdrawal order may be seen as capitulating, and that would be an unsavoury position for the government. It chose instead to do nothing and continue with empty bluster.

Without a directive from Kyiv, some bases in Crimea also fell into disarray. At Perevalnoye, Ukrainian troops simply walked out, shortly afterwards replaced by Russians, this time without balaclavas. 

Not at Belbek though, Crimea’s largest base, where the colonel just would not be moved.

There is still no explanation for Kyiv’s failure to provide a way out for the troops who decided to hold on, including those under Mamchur’s command.

It’s just one of the many questions begging for answers since this crisis began. Most need to be directed at political leaders of all sides, and all stripes. Many of those questions begin with “why.”

Economic, political concerns

To cite just one example, why, if Putin’s annexation of Crimea was illegal as Western powers have stated, have they failed to act beyond minor sanctions against a small band of Putin loyalists? 

The answer, apparently, lies in a combination of economic and political concerns that trumped the desire of some members to push the military envelope — if only as a deterrent. But none of the Western leaders is saying so publicly.

And if other members — say Canada, for example — were so adamant about helping Ukraine anyway, why do they offer so little of the help they could in fact provide unilaterally and without upsetting allies? 

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, stand guard with Ukrainian servicemen seen in the foreground, at the air base. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper dropped in on Kyiv Saturday, he toured Maidan, where it all started, and laid a wreath. He offered symbolic support. Nothing more was announced.

And when it’s obvious Western leaders have no intention of expelling Russia from the G8 — it would serve no one’s interests — why are they suddenly calling it the G7, when Russia continues to be a member, albeit suspended?

And if as stated this weekend the Pentagon does not believe a Russian advance into Eastern Ukraine is imminent, why is there still so much talk of war? Especially when both sides have agreed to deploying independent military observers in the area?

For Putin, the pile of “whys” is also high. If he believes he’s in the right on Crimea, that its people had voted freely in a legal referendum — why did he send Russian soldiers into the territory? And why did Putin insist on denying their presence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

And at precisely what stage did both sides acknowledge there would be no fighting over Kyiv and Crimea as they continued to warn of and whip up concern about escalation?

'I'm not threatening anyone'

All of this is in the backdrop as the conversation between the Ukrainian and the Russian emissary ensues. They briskly take turns invoking history, law, and precedent. But they find themselves at a stalemate.

“I have no right to take out my regiment,” says Mamchur. “Don’t you understand, you’re the one threatening me here."

Alexander, the emissary, is skeptical about the accusation, but the colonel is persuasive.

You do not need to send anyone here. Let our great leaders figure it out and make a decision and everything will be fine.-  Ukrainian Col. Yuri Mamchur

“I’m not threatening anyone,” he continues. “My airbase was taken from me. Do you know about that? I am not even trying to go there anymore. I don’t have any will or means to get it back. And for now I’m waiting for my next orders.”

With those few words, Mamchur was doing what many in the world’s media have failed to do so since the crisis started — hold his political leaders accountable for their actions, or lack thereof. Alexander ever so slightly softens his tone. 

“I totally understand you and I support you like a fellow military man, but I have one request ... that my orders and your orders don’t lead to an escalation.”

No one wanted an escalation on the international stage either. And yet many of their statements consistently contained threats.

A Ukrainian serviceman holds a flag of Ukraine and smokes after Russian troops have surrounded the base. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

The two men fall silent at one stage, eyes cast downward. The colonel looks pained. He finally punctuates the conversation with a convincing resolution.

“You do not need to send anyone here. Let our great leaders figure it out and make a decision and everything will be fine,” he says. 

“I think this is the right way to go. That will be more civilized. It’s the 21st century.”

Wise words. 

Commander missing

It is the 21st century, yet even so, those great leaders, without exception, are still using Cold War tactics to badger, deceive and occasionally even help each other, while unnecessarily scaring the daylights out of the rest of us.

Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, the commander of the base, is reportedly in jail in Sevastopol but his whereabouts can not be confirmed. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

Why did Mamchur not order his men to shoot? He likely knew they — like the Ukrainian army — were no match for the Russians. He knew any loss of life could mean a bigger war that no one wanted. Most of his men walked around the base unarmed.

Why did he dig in? As a leader in his own right, he had big reasons. On the base he was responsible for the lives of 23 pilots, hundreds of soldiers and their families (as well as his own), the fate of Ukrainian fighter jets, and a huge ammunition cache which had to remain secured. 

Belbek eventually fell to Russian troops on Saturday after they surrounded it and issued a final ultimatum. An armoured personnel carrier stormed the gate. Russians opened fire, but once again, only over the heads of the Ukrainians. They, too, wanted to avoid fatalities and a bigger war, but they wanted that base.

As for Mamchur's fate, there are conflicting reports: some say he has been taken in by Russian forces for "talks." Others claim he's in jail in Sevastopol. So for now, his exact whereabouts are unknown.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.